The Amazing Functions of Female Hormones
I covered some of the most important hormone basics in an earlier post, so now let’s talk specifically about the functions of female hormones – specifically estrogen and progesterone.
These female hormones, (or any other type for that matter), work throughout the body, especially in the brain and nervous system. When your female hormones are out of balance, uncomfortable symptoms can reach well beyond things like cramping, heavy bleeding, or other common reproductive-system-based complaints. In many cases your thinking may be sluggish, your memory impaired, your mood sort of like a rollercoaster ride, you may have low to nonexistent energy, and you may even have muscle aches or joint pain. You may have trouble handling stress because of the close relationship of the female hormones to the adrenal glands – your stress-handling system and the corresponding stress hormones. So if you typically think of estrogen and progesterone strictly as reproductive hormones, think again.
The female hormones play a major role in energy production as they are in charge of keeping your blood sugar steady. (Ever have sweet cravings or carb cravings during certain times of the month? Well, this is why.) So these amazing communicators to the cells influence energy, reproduction, how your body handles stress, and interestingly, anti-aging (or body rebuilding). Yes, they are a critical player when it comes to signaling the cells to repair themselves.
So estrogen and progesterone have a lengthy list of responsibilities. But clearly, their greatest influence lies in a woman’s reproductive cycle. Let’s delve into that a bit more.
What is the role of estrogen when it comes to the reproductive cycle of a woman?
Basically, estrogen is responsible for the proliferation (building up) following your period up until around Day 14 when you ovulate. This hormone helps to build up the uterine lining, stimulate breast tissue, and thicken the vaginal wall. Estrogen also affects almost every other organ in the body, playing a critical role in bone building and offering protective effects on the cardiovascular system. Estrogen is highest during the first half of the menstrual cycle and is associated with a state of well-being, optimal energy level, normal sleep, clear thinking, sharp memory and ability to concentrate. Although estrogen is primarily manufactured in the ovaries, it is also produced by the adrenal glands and fat cells.
The term “estrogen” refers to the combination of three compounds: Estrone (E1), Estradiol (E2), and Estriol (E3).
The strongest and most influential (and aggressive) of the three estrogen hormones is Estradiol, with the next in strength being Estrone. What do I mean by “aggressive”? Well, at high levels these compounds appear to be associated with an increased risk of breast and uterine cancers. They also have the tendency to convert back and forth into one another and to promote the sometimes rampant growth of cells. On a positive note, aside from being the most aggressive of the estrogens, estrone and estradiol are noted for creating our feminine qualities that begin to develop at puberty. They also are the forms most touted for protecting the mind, the bones and the cardiovascular system. Estradiol is actually credited with preventing the loss of old bone tissue while estrone promotes the growth of new bone tissue.
The body produces estradiol, the very powerful growth enhancer, with each menstrual period. The estradiol locks into the estrogen receptor sites in both normal and abnormal cells of the breast tissue and elsewhere and tells these cells to grow. This form of estrogen also helps build up the uterine lining every month in preparation for a new baby and is the cause of swollen, tender breasts each month before our periods.
Estriol, the third major type of estrogen, is the more “benign” compound of the three estrogens, exerting more of a protective and counterbalancing effect against the other two. This estrogen contributes to healthy and youthful skin, keeps the vagina moist and lubricated, prevents hot flashes and night sweats, and may even play a role in cancer prevention. Estriol levels should not decrease during menopause. Higher levels of estriol are associated with less heart disease and better circulation overall. This is the dominant estrogen hormone during pregnancy. Estriol is also considered anti-cancer.
How about progesterone? What does it do?
Progesterone is a hormone produced only during the second half of the menstrual cycle, as it helps to build up the uterine lining in preparation for an implanted egg. This phase is pretty much fixed at 14 days and is represents the latter part of the menstrual cycle that is associated with physical and emotional disruption for 40% of women. PMS is actually associated with a disruption in the level of progesterone levels in the body. When something in a woman’s life (i.e. pregnancy, stress/trauma or oral contraceptives) interferes with the pituitary-ovarian feedback loop (we’ll talk about this shortly), it causes the natural supply of progesterone to decrease.
And then there’s testosterone . . .
Testosterone also is made in the ovaries. This hormone plays a role in stimulating sexual desire, generating energy, and developing muscle mass.
What happens to those hormones during perimenopause?
about 10 years (or more) prior to the actual cessation of your period, or menopause, hormones begin to go berserk. Estrogen production by the ovaries decreases slightly, while progesterone production decreases big time. The adrenal glands – or stress-hormone-producing glands – begin to pick up the slack and produce the sex hormones. This is a huge reason why it’s so important to manage stress! You have to allow your adrenal glands to stay strong enough to pick up the slack. When you are over-stressed, so are they! And when they are overwhelmed by making stress hormones, they don’t have the energy to produce enough sex hormones.
Guess what else helps the body produce the necessary hormones during this time of life – FAT! Yes, you read that correctly. The body begins to store fat more readily (think abdomen!) so that it can produce and store estrogen in the fat cells in anticipation of less estrogen production from the ovaries. Testosterone is still made by the ovaries and adrenals at this point but at lower levels.
What happens to those hormones during menopause?
Once a woman hits menopause, she no longer has functional follicles in the ovaries and the period ceases for at least a 12 month period of time. Progesterone production comes close to a halt, estrogen production continues but mostly through fat and adrenals. Testosterone production from the adrenals and ovaries becomes very, very low. Your brain determines at what point you will go through menopause. This happens when it is convinced that you no longer need to run menstrual cycles. The functionality of your brain is very important, especially at this point in time. When you begin menopause, you will either have high estrogen or low estrogen. With low estrogen levels, cycles are lighter, scantier, and eventually disappear. Heavy, clotty cycles signal high estrogen. No matter where you fall in this range, it’s important to remember that menopause is normal and it doesn’t have to be filled with discomfort.
So that’s a basic overview of the female hormones. As you can see even from this relatively short description, stress plays a major role in hormone production. And stress can mean an emotional or physical strain on the body, so be aware of how you feel and give yourself some downtime daily in the form of meditation or gentle, mindful movement like yoga.
In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about the mechanisms the body uses to regulate hormone production. You won’t want to miss that, especially if you’re experiencing discomfort due to suspected hormone imbalance.
Thanks for reading!
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